SUNBEAM goes together with Tiger like fish and chips. To most people, the most remembered model from this small Wolverhampton brand is the V8 version of the Alpine, a two-seater open roadster that was built from components within the Rootes group.
Like many small sports cars that came out of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, they are based on existing engines, chassis and trim of more marketable saloon or family cars.
The shrinking empire, and much better cars from Europe and Japan meant a loss of captive markets and this forced many car firms to merge to survive, forcing the engineers to work on a shoestring budget, and to come up with variants they raided the corporate parts catalogue.
The Sunbeam Alpine shared many of its underpinnings with the many variants of the Hillman Minx and, to make it special, the company engaged legendary American designer Raymond Loewy’s to come up with the styling.
Loewy is most famous for creating the iconic Coke bottle and the blue and white livery of the American presidential aircraft, the Air Force One.
He came up with a clean and modern design that had hints of Americana, which is not a bad thing as American cars were among the best-looking cars of the era.
If we look closely at the front of the Alpine, the semi-hooded lamps and wide grinning grille are features that were imported from across the pond, as were the fins that gave home to the tail lamps and the bumper pods that were found on iconic American cars, such as the 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air.
Building roadsters on the underpinnings of saloons meant that they have to share some of the family car sensibilities and dimensions, and this helped tremendously with fundamental elements such as ergonomics and cabin space. At least we know that average people can fit in them quite comfortably.
Building roadsters on the underpinnings of saloons also meant sharing the more prosaic features of the family sedan, such as their decidedly unathletic four-cylinder engines and puny brakes.
Some say the end results are great lightweight compact sports cars that are affordable, reliable and easy to maintain. Others say they are hair dressers’ cars. This explains the rather odd title of this article. It doesn’t? Oh, well.
Half a decade after the Alpine’s launch in 1959, muscle car specialist Carroll Shelby stepped into the breach and promised to work his magic and turn the Alpine into an automotive Icon.
Ian Garrad, who was the West Coast manager for Sunbeam in the United States, was not too excited about the small four-pot under the bonnet and immediately measured how much space he had.
Legend has it that Garrad measured the engine bay with a particularly peculiar piece of precision instrument, a stick of wood.
Garrad informed his service manager of the precise dimensions of the engine bay, which was two and half sticks by one and three quarter twigs times one branch and told the chap to urgently inquire what engine would fit in that space. He was told that a 260 cubic-inch Ford would fit right in.
Keen to have something more muscular to sell, Garrad called Shelby for help.
He told Garrad that it would take all of eight weeks to get a prototype going and it would cost them US$10,000.
Shelby had already turned the AC Ace, a rather attractive roadster, into the AC Cobra and was now famous.
The AC Cobra is a car that is so hardcore, it can leave a dent in a billionaire’s bank balance. Well not a dent but a nick. If you are just a multi-millionaire then, yes, the price of a Cobra can make your money manager frown.
Armed with Shelby’s reputation, Garrad went to Sunbeam and got the approval.
56 days later, the Tiger was born.
Sunbeam placed an order for 3,000 engines from Ford, the largest single order of engines that Uncle Henry ever received from another manufacturer, so they were happy to supply the motors.
That was the targeted annual sales figure for the Tiger, most of which ended up stateside.
Obviously, this is a fictional dramatisation of actual events, but we believe that the assertions made here are sufficiently congruent with the facts so as not to impose an unreasonable burden of logic on those who read it. We mean to say that our version could be true.
Once Shelby was done, he thought the company might hand over the production contract to him.
Maybe they didn’t trust him because he was already doing something similar with the Cobra or maybe they just wanted to keep the job British. The fact is, we don’t really know why Jensen ended up building the cars and Shelby just collected royalty cheques for every car made.
We don’t know if the American stormed out in anger or joy upon hearing this decision, but we know that the Tiger was in production from 1964 to 1967.
In the last few months of production, the car received a 400cc boost when they bolted on 4.7-litre engines. These slightly bigger engines were also from Ford. They built just over 600 of these variants.
Production stopped after 1967 because Chrysler bought over the Rootes group and they didn’t have a suitable V-8 to fit under the bonnet.
Sunbeam Tigers are a lot less desirable than the mad AC Cobra because it doesn’t have the full 7.0-litre to draw everyone’s jaws slack, but 4.7-litre was plenty enough to get around.
Tigers are rare in these parts, but if you can find them, they are worth a look at, especially since these cars are rather pretty and have the mark of Shelby and Jensen on them. While they may not be the most prized of cars, they have an interesting back story, which is just as important as the sheet metal.